Marry Me: Bittersweet Updike

Can anyone write like John Updike? He could make even adultery lyrical.

He does not turn a blind eye to the toll it takes. The lovers are exposed for what they are — cheating on their spouses and neglecting their little children. But Updike’s powerful prose captures the irresistible magnetism that drives two married people headlong into love.

No book could have a more romantic title than Marry Me.

But it is Updike the sensuous moralist’s bittersweet cautionary tale about the temptations that could ruin a marriage.

Jerry wants to marry Sally, and she wants him.

And when her husband, Richard, finds out, he does not stand in their way.

Instead he threatens to sue Jerry unless he marries her. He wants Jerry to pay for alienating her affections from him.

But Ruth is not letting go of Jerry.

She has broken up with Richard, an affair about which Jerry and Sally know nothing.

There are no innocents in this early 1960s extramarital romance except the little children. Whiny, sulky, helpless little brats who have to be fed and bathed and taken out to play while their parents think of separating.

Ruth tells Jerry he can’t walk out on them — and there are moments when he also thinks he can’t.

He is caught in a terrible bind, yearning for Sally, but his conscience won’t let him go unless Ruth sets him free.

The scenes where they discuss breaking up and then sleep in the same bed or engage in other intimacies show how complex marriage can be.

But Updike is at his best in the early part when Jerry and Sally are rapturously in love, undetected by their spouses.

Here they are making love on a desolate beach in the afternoon.

Love by the sea

They moved back to the blanket and drank from the paper cups. Then they drank the wine from each other’s mouth; he spilled a little into her navel and lapped it up. In time he shyly asked, “Want me inside you?”

“Yes, so much? All the time?” Her voice was lifting everything into questions again.

“There’s nobody around. We’re really quite hidden.”

“Let’s hurry.”

As he kneeled at her feet to pull off the lower of the two pieces of her yellow bathing suit, he was reminded, unexpectedly, of shoe salesmen; as a child he had worried about these men who had made a career of kneeling and tugging at other people’s feet, and had wondered why they did not appear to feel demeaned by it.

Though Sally had been married ten years, and furthermore had lovers before Jerry, her lovemaking was wonderfully virginal, simple and quick. With his own wife he had a corrupt sensation, often, of convolution and inventive effort, but with Sally there was always, for all the times she had endured this before, a priceless sense of her being, yet once again, innocently amazed. Her face, freckled, rapt, the upper lip perspiring in the sun and lifted so her front teeth glinted, seemed a mirror held inches below his own face, a misted mirror more than another person. He asked himself who this was and then remembered, Why, it’s Sally! He closed his eyes and fitted his breathing into her soft exclamatory sighing. When this had ebbed into regular breathing, he said, “It’s better outdoors, isn’t it? You get more oxygen.”

He felt her rapid little nodding flutter on his shoulder.

“Now leave me?” she said.

Lying beside her as she wriggled back into her bathing suit pants, he betrayed her by wishing for a cigarette. It would have gone so well with the plenitude, the gratitude,the wide sky, the scent of sea. Ashamed of slipping back into a polluted old self, he poured the last of the wine into their cups and rooted the empty bottle like a monument, mouth up, in the sand.

She looked down into the empty parking lot and asked, “Jerry, how can I live without you?”

“The same way I live without you. By not living most of the time.”

“Let’s not talk about it. Let’s not spoil our day.”


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